Metaphorical Drawing as a Tool to Build Relationships of Attachment between Foster and Kinship Carers and Children in their Care.

10626585_759069220821973_6528970359671927082_nThe Northern Territory is over-represented when it comes to Aboriginal children in out-of-home care.  And despite the Aboriginal Placement Principle being adopted, many Aboriginal children still find themselves placed with non-Aboriginal foster carers because they continue to be removed from their families and there are not enough Aboriginal carers.  Not surprisingly, after all the trauma these little tikes have been through, it can be a battle for the Department and the Carers to make the placement work.  Often these children haven’t been able to build a trusted relationship of attachment to their primary carer because of traumatic events in the family, let alone the strange adult they now live with.

Last week I was invited to participate in the Foster & Kinship Care Expo hosted by Foster Carers Association of the NT.  I decided to engage the children in a fun drawing activity which foster and kinship carers could later take home and use to explore their relationship together.  It goes something like this.

10511123_759069540821941_8587260440108007074_nChildren are asked to think about if they were an animal, what kind would they be? If they get stuck, I discuss with them the different characteristics of animals. Some are shy and quiet, others are happy and excited, while some are wild and angry. You get the picture! They are invited to then draw the animal that most closely resembles them, using their choice of drawing materials. I had crayons, pastels and textas available. I encourage them to fill in the whole page, drawing the habitat that the animal finds itself in on a daily basis. At the expo, some children chose to do several animals describing the different parts of themselves. Others, chose to include family members or friends represented by different animals in their picture.

The kids had lots of fun, but the real work happens later. Foster carers were invited to use my Take Home Sheet which offered ways of interviewing the child about their picture. You can learn a lot about what is going on for your child by talking to them through the animal eyes, so to speak.   It is much easier for Aboriginal children to speak in third person through telling a story, than talking directly about their own experience and feelings.

At home, foster carers are also invited to draw an animal picture. This can be used to explore the relationships between the two animals, how well they get on, and what needs to happen for the animals to trust each other. Having this one-on-one time with the child, is a purposeful and meaningful way for the child to build a connection, using the safety and playfulness of their imagination. These kids deserve our full attention so avoid any chance of distractions like turning off your mobile.

If you’d like to read more about the questions to use when talking to children, download my Take Home Sheet here Build Relationships and Connection for Foster Carers and their children.

In my counselling work, I’ve written fictional stories with children about different animals and other characters, that is based on their own experiences. It’s a beautiful way to be able to help them communicate what they haven’t been able to express before. And help them make sense of what happened along the journey!

Never underestimate the power of play as a tool to share difficult experiences, communicate feelings and strengthen relationships!10599157_759069590821936_5640702642905705167_n


An Aboriginal Perspective of Grieving and Healing from Loss


Pukumani ceremony burial poles of the Tiwi people.

One of the saddest things about working in remote communities of Northern Australia is the constant and ongoing presence of grief as families mourn the loss of loved ones. To have four funerals a month seems the norm. If this occurred in a small white community of 1,500 people, this would be considered outrageous! But in Aboriginal communities, it is the reality of their lives.
If you are Aboriginal, you can expect to die 10 to 12 years earlier than non-Aboriginal people. But the gap widens to 14 years if you are Aboriginal, male and live in the Northern Territory. This is worse than many third world countries!
Topping the biggest killers list are heart disease, cancers and injuries. The NT can also lay claim to the highest suicide rate in Australia – 20 deaths per 100,000 – because one third of its population is comprised of Aboriginal people.   The majority of these suicides involve Aboriginal children and young men.
So you’re starting to get the picture. Aboriginal people are grieving the loss of loved ones every day! Healing is an ongoing process where no end point is ever reached.

As I interviewed Shane Kerinauia this week, his home community of Pirlangimpi were awaiting the outcome of a young man missing for six days. It now appears he was taken by a crocodile. I can’t imagine how a small community of 400 deals with this!  But they will. They will cry together. They will seek comfort in each other. And they will continue on, because that is just what they do.  For Shane, our guest blogger, he often thinks about the 3 really close school mates he lost at a young age and more recently, a cousin in a car accident. One thing that helps ease the pain is thinking about good memories.
“I keep thinking about the old school days. We used to share stories and talk about playing sports. I used to go around to his place, to his brothers and he used to come over to my place.   We used to share things. We used to talk about his AFL footy star. We used to bag each other out or make a bet. If your team wins, I buy you a drink. I feel like he’s still alive again. I will still have the good memories for the rest of my life.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to juggle the cultural obligations that come with attending ceremonies, with personal responsibilities such as holding down a job.
“I missed his funeral because I had to work. It’s hard. I haven’t seen his family yet. It’s the feelings that will come. I feel shame, not confronting them. I want to leave that shame to rest. Not to think about it too much. I am comfortable with taking the time I need. You can go and visit the family later and it’s okay.”

Shane talks about the good ways of coping with difficult feelings.
“Last month or too, I’ve been down a lot. I’ve got other mates I can go and yarn to. My mate is feeling down as well. We have a conversation, reminiscing together about the school days. [We’re] mates sharing the tears together. Hugs and crying help too. I talk to my partner about the feelings in my head and she gives me a hug. I’ve been talking to my mum too. I share my feelings with lots of different people. It’s not Tiwi way, to drink, get drunk and then cry. I don’t believe in that.”

Shane says an important part of the healing process for Tiwi people is about giving the person a proper ceremony.
“I believe in getting together and grieve proper way. Before they bury the person, family get together and do a healing. Singing, sharing things to each other, just having a laugh, sharing food together, BBQ, good memories.   We listen to the Elders. They tell us you gotta be strong. Don’t let that memory affect you….. When a person dies, other people that have died come along, just to let us know they’re here with us, to take the person away with them. It’s a comforting thing. We sit down quiet.   Next day we have smoking ceremony. It’s very important for us to have this ceremony, to smoke the spirit away. If we don’t smoke the house, the spirit is still living there.“

Tiwi people have a special spiritual connection to those that have gone before them.
“Sometimes when we feel the energy of a person, it’s a comforting thing. Once when I was at the pool, I could feel [my partners dad] there, telling me to go back to work. It was nice to hear. Everytime I am there, I can hear him. Sometimes I get goosebumps. It puts a smile on [my partners] face. It’s like he’s watching over me. I feel comfortable with it. Safe. He gives me a message. “

And Shane’s final words about healing from loss?
“Be strong. Be yourself. I am strong for my family. My relatives are the most important thing in my life. I just want to do things I want to do. Fishing and hunting and camping. Go and visit families and friends. If my daughter even has to go through what I’ve been through, I’ll be able to support her.”

The strong spirit and resilience of Aboriginal people’s lives in coping with loss shines through in Shane’s story and so many people like him. I thank him for his willingness to share his story.

ShaneShane Kerinaiua is currently employed at CatholicCare NT with The Strong Men’s Program. He won the Aust-Swim Water Safety National Award in 2011. He holds the record for the most goals kicked in a year in the Tiwi Football League.


Using Art to Heal from the ‘Bystander’ Trauma of Witnessing Worldwide Disasters

2014 is starting to feel like a tragic year. Two heartbreaking airline disasters are making the world an unsafe place to explore. The actions of uncaring, uncompassionate politicians are shining the international human rights spotlight on Australia. And even our neighbourhood is mourning the loss of unexplained suicide.

Even though none of these events have affected me or my family directly, it feels like my safe and secure ‘cone of comfort’ is slowly being smothered as layer by layer another blanket is added on top. I am heavy and weary. I am trying to breathe. Earlier this year, I was particularly sensitive to what was happening around me. I was even told by my doctor to stop watching the news and using Facebook, as it would depress me too much. I did for a few weeks until my sadness about the world subsided. Momentarily.   You cannot avoid it. You cannot tune out entirely. So what do you do with these feelings that you carry?

It feels like some sort of “bystander trauma”. But this term has been used to describe those who have witnessed their loves ones die or seriously injured at the scene of an accident or the like. So it is probably not the right term to use for those of us watching on as the bystanders suffer.  Then again, some of the images we see on media are pretty graphic.  It practically feels like you’re there.

How can the majority of us who may not be directly affected by tragedy or injustice express our sadness for the grief and suffering of others? How can we express our own feelings of losses…like safety and security in the world….or nationwide compassion towards those being oppressed?

Art is used in a therapeutic context to assist those directly affected by grief, loss and trauma to “confront emotions, overcome depression, integrate traumatic experiences and find relief and resolution of grief and loss” (Malchiodi 2007).  But I believe it is also useful to those of us on the sidelines, watching the tragedy unfold before us and watching the bystanders grieve. The process of making art is a sensory experience, not a cognitive one. It gives us a safe place to express feelings we don’t have the words for or an audience available to listen.

So after the tragedy of MH17 this is what I did.

If like me, you’re feeling the weight of the blankets smothering you…watching the violence, the despair and the tears of the world, as you try to draw breath, why not give it a go?

  1. Find a piece of paper. It could be a A4 sheet, scrapbook or journal.
  2. Gather something to draw with e.g. textas, pencils, pastels, paint – whatever you prefer or feels right for you.
  3. Gather some collage materials if you have more time. I used the newspaper with the feature story of the tragedy.
  4. Use the materials in front of you to express your thoughts and feelings in whatever form you choose, concrete or abstract. You do not have to use words.
  5. When you are finished, take some deep breaths and acknowledge what it feels like in your body right now.

By the way, don’t think that you haven’t got time for this. Even if you’re sitting at your desk, grab a sticky note and a pen and doodle to your hearts content. Making art is good for you. It might even make you feel like you can come out from underneath the blanket and carry on.

References:  Malchiodi, C. (2007) The Art Therapy Sourcebook, 2nd edn. McGraw Hill Publishing.

Lucy mask

Fun, creative and effective: I UN-MASK the biggest problem facing non-Aboriginal counsellors working with traumatised Aboriginal children!

kids in masksIn 2012 I was lucky enough to attend the Art Therapy Conference in Bali. Here I was exposed to the use of masks in therapy from a Gestalt Art Therapy perspective.   Masks have been worn for performance, entertainment, disguise, concealment and protection. They have been around since ancient times and have been used in ceremony, storytelling and dramatic enactment. Working in pairs, we were invited to explore our inner selves and begin to project this image onto large lifesize headwear, only to have our partner complete the transformative artwork based on their interpretation of our selves. Masked up, these projections of unconscious were transformed into dance, movement and story to music in groups. It was a completely nervewracking but invigorating and freeing experience. I began to think if only I could bring this same sense of freedom and transformation to the children I worked with who lived with the effects of trauma in their lives back home!

This objective of the gestalt approach to using masks in therapy is to ‘liberate’ a person by making contact with the inner (or unconscious) part of themselves. Masks can be used as a diagnostic tool, an object of transformation or as a facilitation of dialogue and communication. As a non-Aboriginal woman working with Aboriginal children who are often difficult to engage in conversation about the trauma in their lives, I was more interested in the latter. One of the biggest problems I encountered in my work with children was engaging them and building their trust. Unlike adults, children don’t necessarily walk into the counselling room with a problem or issue they want to work on. It is usually concerned family members or teachers or police or welfare workers that say there is a problem. So how do you get children to open up when they don’t know why they’re even seeing you? Masks not only presented as a fun and creative way of engaging Aboriginal kids, but it could actually lead them to opening up about their lives too!

Lucy mask

My transformative mask from the Art Therapy Conference, Bali 2012.

Working from a narrative perspective, I could see the potential for masks to provide a safe place to talk about problems without feeling exposed or shamed. The problem could be projected from where the child perceived it was sitting (inside them) onto the mask (outside of them) in a process of externalisation thereby separating the problem from the person. They could literally hide behind and communicate through their mask in a non-direct way by putting it on their face, rather than having to talk directly to me in the first person. I was excited about this idea and came back to Australia seeking to explore ways of using this creative method of bringing healing to the lives of children I was working with.

After a few school terms of using this approach with both boys and girls of all ages, I ended up with a counselling room wall full of masks – sad ones, angry ones, lonely ones, crazy ones, and I even enabled the quietest boy to name his shame for the first time in his life through a mask. New children were always curious about the wall of faces and this was enough of an invitation to want to make one too. Mask making ended up being one of the most powerful way of opening a door to the child’s heart and mind.

To get a sense of how I incorporated narrative ideas into mask making, download my notes here.
Using Masks to Incorporate Narrative and Art Therapy ideas by Lucy.
Perhaps you might take these beginning ideas and develop them further? I would love to hear how it goes. Or if you have other ways you use masks in your healing work with children, please use this space to share what works.

This method would work just as well with Aboriginal women and men who have difficulty opening up about their experiences.

Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

A reflection on Western and Aboriginal World Views in Counselling and Social Work Practice

Nami and Lucy

Caught in a wet season storm at Yirrkala Women’s Centre.

I have the most beautiful memories of my work out at NE Arnhemland. I was amazed by how much I achieved in such a short time, given that I did not have relationships in the communities of Nhulunbuy or Yirrkala. The most special part was finding Nami White who I ended up employing to work with me in the Children’s Counselling program. In 2010 she invited me to go to her outstation at Buymarr for three days. I used the time out bush to document how Nami and I were operating in the space where two worldviews meet and I recently stumbled upon my writings. At the time I really appreciated being able to reflect on my social work practice in this way.   I hope it inspires you to do the same.


This document brings together ideas from Nami White and Lucy Van Sambeek who work under the SAAP Children’s Project for Relationships Australia. It aims to show how Yolngu and Western worldviews are working together to bring healing to the lives of children, their mothers and families affected by domestic and family violence.

This document was created from a conversation which occurred while camping at Buymarr, an outstation where Nami often visits and stays with family when she needs some time away from her community of Yirrkala. On this trip, Nami brought her grandson to provide him with an opportunity for counselling and traditional healing to address some of the difficulties he is experiencing in his life.

This process has given us new insight into each other’s world view and an appreciation for what we each bring to the work, what we are doing and how we are doing it. Perhaps these ideas might be of use one day to other workers who are trying to marry Western approaches to counselling with Yolngu methods of healing.


Together we bring a wide variety of knowledge to the work, derived from formal education, life experience, observation and history. We have a shared understanding about the nature of domestic and family violence. Lucy says that:

  • Men are more likely to be perpetrators of violence than women
  • Children are the silent sufferers
  • Drugs and alcohol affect people’s behaviour but is not a cause of violence. We know this because not all drunks are violent
  • Children are affected by being a witnesses to violence
  • Sometimes it is difficult to see the effects of violence in children. The quiet child is not necessarily seen as a child of concern.
  • Parents may not recognise the effects violence has on their children
  • Trauma from domestic violence can have life long effects
Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

Nami connects with children in the community through art and storytelling.

Nami brings knowledge about domestic violence and family violence watching children and parents in her own community and family. She worked for many years in the voluntary-based women’s night patrol, walking on foot around the community looking out for children. Nami can recognise those children that are quiet and frightened, “don’t want to mix with other children”, and “can’t be who they want to be”. Some children want to be with others but are prevented from doing so by adults who act protectively to keep them away from other children, for fear of getting into a fight. Children take a long time to talk up about their situation with someone they trust – this could be out of fear or shame. They may not want to get into trouble.

Children can take sides with their mother or father depending on what they have been led to believe by the perpetrator. When violence is happening children react different ways, some may try to protect their mother, try to stop the fight and disarm weapons while others may run or hide.

Shame can prevent women from speaking up about domestic violence. Shame can stop men from admitting fault or taking responsibility for their behaviour.   Women are likely to stay in a relationship which is violent as leaving the relationship could bring shame to her and the family. However, if the fear is strong enough women have been known to leave their partners, children and community as they feel they have no choice. They are often seen as the ones to blame.

The Western world would say that formal theories shape our understanding of observations such as these. This includes knowledge about family systems, social learning, behaviour, a holistic view of health, the cycle of violence and trauma responses. Nami also brings knowledge gained from her experiencing of living with a violent and jealous husband. She also knows what it is like to live in a gentle and loving relationship. Living with violence has given her insight into what causes violence, what it feels like to live with violence and what signs to look out for in other women. Nami has seen men become physically sick from perpetrating violence, as a result of the bottling up of guilt and shame. Serious sickness can become a precursor for a change of behaviour in the perpetrator.

Nami has also had two fathers as positive role models who have taught her to be on the look-out for warning signs. Her fathers used to tell Nami stories about times they intervened in family disputes often putting themselves in the face of danger. Their message to her was to practice the same ways, stand up strong to help Yolngu people and live by the lore. With the support of her father, Nami once confronted a hostile man saying “I’m not afraid if you hit me or hurt me”. He taught Nami how to love the enemy. This old man was a respected Elder who knew how to operate in the world of Balanda and Yolngu.

As a girl, Nami also learned about how to live a good life and how to treat other people through women’s ceremonies. We also bring knowledge about recent histories events in Nhulunbuy and surrounding Aboriginal communities, and how these have impacted on the spirit and behaviour of Yolngu people. Nami says the introduction of alcohol has had devastating effects, creating divisions within families, and between the generations, through the perpetration of violence. Elders are sick and tired of the violence caused by alcohol in their communities.

With the introduction of mining in the area, came a system of royalties paid to traditional owners of the land and their families. However, Nami sees that the system is not equal and fair, with the most powerful and greedy landowners, handing out the money as they see fit. The impact of this, filters down to families where disputes over royalty handouts not paid, erupt into bouts of drinking and violence. Traditional values about caring for the land have been replaced with concerns about power and money.

Values and Beliefs

Social justice and human rights are foundational social work values that underpin our work with children and families. Lucy says this is pertinent when working with Aboriginal communities, who continue to suffer from the effects of discriminatory policies and practices from governments. Finding ways of working which reclaim the dignity, respect and self-determination of individuals, families and communities is of utmost importance.

Together we believe:

  • All people including children have a right to feel safe
  • All people have a right to be treated fairly and with respect
  • All people should have an opportunity to make decisions that affect their own lives
  • Violence against any person, particularly woman and children is unacceptable
  • That there is always hope and therefore change is possible.

Nami believes that role modelling her values and beliefs through her behaviour can show people alternative ways of living and being to violence. For Nami this means being gentle, kind and caring, sharing with others; treating others how she wants to be treated; showing respect, and following lore and cultural beliefs. These values have developed over a lifetime but were significantly shaped at the death of her son during alcohol-fuelled violence.   Rather than take revenge against the other family, Nami chose to act with forgiveness and found a non-violent path through prayer. Her commitment to Christian values, gives Nami the strength to “love the enemy”. Nami’s father was also a significant role model who had “love for everyone”. Although her heart has been broken many times, Nami knows that she is a stronger woman today for surviving difficult times in her life. Her drive to help her own people by living out her values is significantly shaped by her life experience.


Nami reads a book about fighting to the children during a group session on the beach.

Nami reads a book about fighting to the children during a group session on the beach.

It may seem like a basic counselling skill, but attentive listening is so important in this work. Aboriginal people have been ignored for so long, that it would be unjust and disrespectful to continue to impose Western solutions to Aboriginal problems without listening to their own expressed needs, hopes and dreams for change. Lucy’s strengths are also in asking the right questions in ways which are appropriate for Aboriginal communication styles, developing trust and rapport by focusing on building relationships, finding creative and safe ways for people to tell their stories, identifying people’s strengths and supports, linking people in to other services or workers, and having genuine positive regard for people with an open mind and non-judgemental attitude.

Nami feels that she is often at the forefront of family and community disputes as a mediator. Her skills are in using her “voice” in “strong hard ways” so that people get the message that violence won’t be tolerated. She reminds people fighting of their kinship ties and the responsibility this brings. She also knows when it’s the right time to walk away, in order to prevent getting caught up in violence acts herself.

In our counselling work, Nami is instrumental in gaining the trust of children and putting adults at ease, by communicating in her first language about our roles and the work we do. She is a translator and cultural guide for Lucy. Nami knows when it is the right time to talk about difficult issues with children and when it would be inappropriate, by reading intuit body language that looks quite unremarkable to Lucy. Nami’s intuition tells her when a child could become upset, angry or re-traumatised.  Such information is vital for the counsellor.

Using Art to yarn about Aboriginal people’s Strong and Healthy picture of the future

This week Christine and I have been preparing for the CAAPS Open Day. CAAPS will be celebrating 30 years supporting Health and Wellbeing in the Northern Territory.

Christine creating her strong and healthy picture

One of the things we’ll be offering visitors is an opportunity to make some art. Art therapy is a non-threatening, creative and stimulating way to engage people in stories about their lives. This form of self expression doesn’t even needs words, as the story transforms itself from the person’s body, mind and spirit onto the blank paper.

While we are using this activity for a bit of fun, it also benefits people who are experiencing illness or pain or are seeking to make major changes towards a healthier lifestyle (such as giving up drinking or smoking). The process invites them to think about the things that will help them move towards healing and a healthy life, rather than dwelling in the symptoms they might be experiencing. This exercise was helpful to me recently in my awfully slow recovery from chronic back pain caused by a bulging disc. I suffered with chronic pain for four months. My ‘strong and healthy picture’ helped me to stay hopeful, patient and connected with the things that support me in good health, so that the negative thinking and pain didn’t pull me back down. It could have been very easy to slip into depression if I didn’t keep reminding myself that recovery was possible.

Drawing on Malchiodi’s ‘Symbol of Health’, we’ve called this exercise developing ‘A strong and healthy picture’. These words seem to resonate with Aboriginal folk. Christine and I took an hour and a half of relaxing time to draw and create our own picture using this process.

Step 1. Take a few minutes to think about what makes you feel strong and healthy in your mind, body and spirit. This might include:

  • People that support you
  • Activities that make you feel good
  • Places you like to go
  • Sports
  • Food you eat
  • What you do to make stress go away
  • Changes you have recently made in your life

Step 2.  Create your “strong and healthy picture” using the materials provided. (We had textas, pastels, magazine cuts/pictures, fabric, glue and scissors available).

Step 3.  Is there anything missing? Add the things you would like to have more of in the future.

Step 4.  Take your picture home and put it in a place to remind you about what keeps you strong and healthy and any future goals.

At the end of our creative session, I invited Christine to reflect on her picture.

What is your picture about?

It’s about the old man telling stories for kids and the land. About painting too. He teaches them how to make the camp fire. Doing dancing and singing. Catching kangaroo and yam.

How do all these things keep you strong and healthy? Why are they important to you?

It’s the way he teaches young people, to keep our knowledge strong. And telling us, how to hunt, how to do [culture things]. When you see the picture it’s going to tell you clearly how you’re to do things.

Where do you see yourself in the picture?

Here, where the land is. It keeps me strong in the nature. How we go to hunt. How we go to catch something to feed for ourselves. There’s a lot of things we can get from the sea – seafoods. Even something from the land, bush tucker.

How do you feel when you’re out there on country?

Good. I feel great. And it makes me get lots of ideas to think. If I go through the bushes and to the beach, ideas come to me.

Is it like ‘strong thinking’ out there?

Yes, feel strong in my mind.

If this picture could talk to you what would it say?

If family went to the beach for hunting or something, it will tell you everything you can get.

It would say “I’ve got all the food that you will need”?

Yo, yo.

Creating a positive picture of health and wellbeing can serve as a reminder during difficult times of where you want to be, so that you don’t slip back into bad habits or spiral into negative thinking and behaviour.

You don’t even need to be ill or suffering to benefit from this uplifting activity. Why not take an hour to indulge yourself this weekend? Find a spot where you can be alone, put on some relaxing music and get creative!


Lucy’s strong and healthy picture


Peeling back the onion layers: How do you ‘do’ trauma-informed work?

utopia1There appears to be a large number of health and allied health professionals who have not even heard of ‘trauma-informed practice’, let alone enact it.   To me, it’s a no-brainer. If you work in the Northern Territory, this beats ‘cultural awareness’ training hands-down.

Last week, I went to hear Larrakia man Ash Dargan’s presentation on Trauma-Informed Workplaces, an activity of Reconciliation week for Larrakia Nation. Ash studied under the guidance and mentoring of Professor Judy Atkinson, author of Trauma Trails: Recreating Song Lines: The Transgenerational Effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia. Perhaps Ash best sums up trauma-informed practice as “looking through a trauma informed lens…where our perspective shifts from ‘something is wrong with this person’ to ‘something has happened to this person’”. It requires a large step away from the Western dominant medical model which has oppressed Aboriginal people for so long. Rather than ‘doing’ to, we can start to think about ‘being with’.

So before we can ‘do’ trauma-informed work, we need a thorough understanding of what trauma is, the complex layers of trauma Aboriginal people have been exposed to since Colonisation and how it plays out in people’s lives today. The ‘babushkas’ diagram which came out of the Healing For Stolen Generations Discussion Paper offers a diagrammatic way to appreciate this complexity that affects individuals, families and communities. Most of us are familiar with the layers of historical trauma – massacres, removal from country, child removal, suppression of culture and language, social control and disease.

utopia-john-pilgerFor a different and somewhat controversial perspective, you could watch “Utopia” like I did on Saturday night. I think this was John Pilger’s latest attempt to try to educate the unsympathetic on the impact of the invasion on Australia’s First Nation peoples. It was an attempt to shock the white population using guilt and shame as leverage for social action, however I don’t believe this approach is helpful. Guilt is not my motivation for participating in the Reconciliation Movement nor working with Indigenous people. Social justice and human rights – yes, guilt – no. Ironically, Utopia also appeared to retraumatise some Aboriginal community members from the tone of messages and sadness expressed on Facebook after the show. Anyway, that’s another story.

Alternatively, Ash offers another way of appreciating the snow-balling effect of First Contact in the ‘generational mapping of trauma’. In the first generation, males were killed and imprisoned and females were sexually abused. The next generation of men turned to alcohol and drugs (freely given by white people) as their cultural and spiritual identity was stripped away and their self worth eroded. The third generation saw men turned on their spouses and society. In the fourth generation, spousal assault turned into child abuse. And in the fifth generation, the cycle starts all over again. Trauma plays out today in unbelievably high rates of imprisonment, substance abuse, racism, child removal, poverty, family violence, lateral violence, and higher rates of suicide, poor health outcomes and lower life expectancy compared to non-Aboriginal Australians.

Ash views First Contact between black and white Australians like a raging bushfire that blazed through the country, out of control, blackening everything in its path. But the smoke is still hanging around. I think that as long as there is no justice or recognition or learning from past mistakes, Aboriginal people won’t be able to see through the smoke. And whitefellas will continue to retraumatise, like the unacceptably high rates of child removal that are still occurring as reported by the ABC on May 26th.

So how does an understanding of historical and contemporary trauma help us ‘do’ trauma informed work? Ash asks us to view Aboriginal people like an onion. We have no idea of the many layers of trauma that they may have experienced throughout their lifetime, and maybe we will only ever peel off one or two. But with an understanding there is more, we are more likely to peel gently and respectfully.

I can’t help but be bought back to the notion of ‘Dadirri’, the inner deep listening and quiet still awareness that Miriam Rose Ungenmerr-Bauman  says is in each one of us.  She also said “Our people are used to the struggle and the long waiting. We still wait for the white people to understand us better. We ourselves have spent many years learning about the white man’s ways; we have learnt to speak the white man’s language; we have listened to what he had to say. This learning and listening should go both ways. We would like people to take time and listen to us.” The skill of Dadirri has taught me how to sit quiet and listen to Aboriginal people as they tell me their story of abuse or pain or hurt or trauma. But Dadirri invites us to look inside our own hearts. I was reminded of this, in break-time during Ash’s presentation when I bumped into an Aboriginal healer I hadn’t seen for a while. I had hardly said a word, when it felt like he was staring into my heart to see what was troubling me. He simply said the answer is inside me, and to find it I block out all the noise in the room and listen for the silence. Even over the top of loud chatter, I could hear white noise. It was calm and peaceful.

This is what healing is all about. Healing from trauma is not something one can ‘do’ to another. Others can show us the way, but it is something we need to do for ourselves.   We have to listen to what is inside our heart.   Perhaps trauma-informed work then, is not so much about ‘doing’, but ‘being’.

“We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives in us” – Charles Perkins

If you’d like to read more on trauma-informed practice, check out my Resource section.


5 Small Steps Towards Healing for Long-grassers* Longing to go Home

Last week I was stopped in the street by a young man, expecting tolong-grassers be asked for three dollars to catch a bus.  I know him from not that many years ago when working on the Tiwi Islands.   He held down a respected community job assisting people to access legal services and he appeared to have a good support network of likeminded young men.   I don’t know what bought him to Darwin, but now like many of his fellow kind, he finds himself stuck here, homeless in the long grass.  Despite accessing rehabilitation, he stood before me, the overpowering scent of alcohol on his breath and a bloody, egg shaped lump on his forehead.  I’d never seen him looking so dishevelled, desperate and lost.  Before he could ask me for the dough, concerned, I quickly interjected “what happened?  Are you OK?”.  He replied politely and articulately, he had been beaten by his partner and that he really should leave the relationship.  When I asked what stops him from leaving, he replied he couldn’t go back home because he wouldn’t be welcome there.   My heart sank in sadness.  He continued “you know I’m gay right?” and proceeded to tell me that he was worried about what the mob back home think about him.  I knew there were plenty of young men back home just like him and they have developed a really strong network with each other.  Attitudes are changing.  “What matters most is what is in here…” I said, resting my hand on his chest “what you think about yourself, not what others think about you”.  He looked hard and deep into my eyes, eventually brought our conversation to an end and turned to walk off.  I noticed he had not asked me for any money this time.  I wondered whether my offering was better than three dollars?  Might this small conversation of care and concern be enough for him to consider returning home?

With the prodigal son story in the back of my mind, I couldn’t imagine anyone returning home from their community after such a long time away would be ostracised, but instead welcomed home with open loving arms.  And I was right.  My guest bloggers this week – Elaine Tiparui, Cathy Stassi and Patricia Munkara – confirmed my hunch that family do worry and care about their lost loved ones living in the long grass and want them all to come back home.  It doesn’t matter what they have done or who they are.  They are still family.

Here are Elaine, Cathy and Patricia’s five tips for helping long-grassers take that first step in returning home.

1.  Tell them “Believe in Yourself”

Cathy says  “They’ve got to believe in themself.  They’ve got to say ‘I put trust in my family’.  It’s a big step, but they could say, ‘yes I need to go home’ and see if it’s going to work.  [They can] take pride in who they are.  Throw away the shame.   Go and deal with the problem.  Face it and I’m sure their family will have an open arm for them.”
We use tough love with our families.  When they take the first step and take responsibility for their actions, we will be there for them.

2.  Give some practical help

Patricia says “Some long grass people, they get phone calls from family, from us.  And then they want to go back home.”    So ask them for a phone number that a family member can ring them on and help them to reconnect.   Whenever Elaine sees a longgrasser in town, she sits down, talks with them, meets their friends and offers to buy some food instead of giving money which might be used for grog.  We can talk to them about what is happening and if they are in trouble help them to find a solution.  They might agree to come back home if they can see we care.
A few years ago concerned Tiwi Elders had a meeting in the long grass and they helped Tiwi people return home, with financial support from Larrakia Nation.  Elaine says “I tell them you have to look after yourself.  If you need to talk to me again, you come and see me and I’ll put you on the plane.”

3.  Help them reconnect with family

“Some of them haven’t been back since they were kids.  They might have grandkids they’ve never met.” says Cathy.  “The kids need to know who they are and he needs to learn where he stands with the kids.  The kids might be missing out on the knowledge that they’ve got.   They might need to connect with family that have passed away.  They should go and visit their grave.  And tell them, ‘I’m back home’”.
“When they say that’s my friends there” in the longgrass, Elaine is quick to remind them about their “grandchildren, mum, Auntie and sister” back home.

4.  Remind them of their country

There are old people that can take them out bush when they come back home.  “Eat some bush tucker, we say that to them” says Patricia.  “Get some fresh air, sea, water, food.  Go home, back to our country.  Try something new.   Instead of doing the same thing.  Because some have been away a long time.”  Elaine says “It’s up to them, not us, but we can heal them”.   They can throw all the bad stuff into the fire.

5.  Help them to see they are missed

For every Tiwi longgrasser living in Darwin, there is a family member back home that cares and worries about them.   Cathy says “They are being missed.  There’s always a safe place for them to go; a person there, to talk about the issue that they’re facing.”   Elaine says “no one judges them.”

We can all feel a bit helpless at times, when we see a homeless person on the street.  But you never know where a small conversation of care and concern will take them.  Do you know their story?  What thoughts and feelings might be stopping them from going home?  This may be the first small step on the road to healing for our long grassers.
If you or someone you know living in the long-grass needs support, we recommend Larrakia Nation to continue the conversation and help our mob get home.

Patricia       cathy      Elaine

(Strong Tiwi women: L to R)  Patricia Munkara lives and works in Wurrumiyanga.  Cathy Stassi lives and works in Pirlangimpi.  Elaine Tiparui is an Elder from Wurrumiyanga.  They all work as Child and Family Support Workers at Relationships Australia NT.

* According to Wikipedia, long-grasser is a contemporary word for a fringe dweller who camps “on the outskirts of Australian towns and cities, from which they have become excluded, generally through law or land alienation.”  It is especially relevant in “Northern Australia where year-long warm weather conditions allow itinerant Aborigines to live indefinitely on the outskirts of towns without official places of residence.”

How Aboriginal women of the Tiwi Islands are reclaiming the knowledge of traditional healing practices


Preparing for traditional healing smoking ceremony, Tiwi Islands

Last year, while working at Relationships Australia I was in the privileged position to be involved in a healing ceremony for a teenager who had recently returned to her community after many years away.  At that time, I had been working on the Tiwi Islands for six years and I had often wondered why the Tiwi people weren’t using more traditional ceremonial practices in their daily lives to heal the children, women and families that were accessing support through our counselling service.  Did they think that whitefellas had all the answers about how to solve the problems blackfellas experienced?  That Tiwi knowledge and traditional ways had nothing valuable to offer?    Had the women lost the knowledge about how to do these traditional healing ceremonies?   Or were they feeling disempowered due to lack of resources to offer it?   It is very much part of my belief system that Tiwi culture offers so much in terms of emotional and spiritual healing, and in fact, empowering Tiwi people to heal themselves and each other is really the only way to make long lasting change from the impacts of intergenerational trauma.  The traditional knowledge is there – I had heard it being talked about by old ladies for many years and I had seen a beautiful strong culture in action in various places – the art centres, out on bush camps, at footy games, at funerals and at Kulama ceremony time.   So why was it then that Tiwi people did not feel confident to speak up and advocate for people accessing our counselling services?  I imagined them saying strongly to me “What is needed here is to take this person out bush and do a smoking ceremony – that’s it, that will heal them”!   I would have been totally supportive of such an initiative.

Despite my approach to social work practice which explicitly values two way learning, I was never asked to support a traditional healing ceremony for any of our clients.   Until last year.  And even then, I had to drop a hint into the ear of my cultural mentor “What would you have done in the old days if someone came home after being away a really long time?”  I waited, then followed up with the more direct “Would you have done some healing on her?   Our client, having lived in foster care much of her life, didn’t know much about her family, didn’t know the language and appeared to be struggling a little with fitting in, a month or so after being reunited with much loved Aunts and grandmothers.   I could see the cogs ticking over in my cultural mentor’s mind, until a smile suddenly spread across her face.  She realised, as this girl’s grandmother, she could definitely round up all the women and take our teenager out bush for a proper Welcome-into-our-Tiwi-family healing ceremony.  So that’s what happened.

The word had spread gently but purposefully like a Dry Season burnoff through women’s channels in the community about what a difference this small gesture had made to the life of this teenager.  I saw the chameleon-like change with my own eyes – she came back from that healing time and place a totally different person.   The women were excited.   Shortly after this, when we were asked to make a presentation to the regular women’s group about the services that Relationships Australia offer, instead I suggested, we facilitate a conversation about the role of traditional healing in recovery from trauma.  So that’s what they did.  It is so important that Tiwi women feel empowered to continue to value their knowledge and traditional healing practices, so that they may offer it to others who are hurting, lost or traumatised by their past.  There are individuals and families that stand to benefit from these women’s healing hands, where Western counselling practices simply cannot go.

While I was able to bring a twist to the discussion by offering an opportunity for the women in the group to make a collage picture representing “What traditional Healing means to you?”, the Tiwi workers largely held the space on their own, with their awesome presence, age-old wisdom and loving devotion to each other.  What was an isolated event for a teenager has now turned into a conversation which aims to keep traditional healing alive, by reclaiming forgotten stories, educating the young people and more actions to go out bush with the holders of this ancient knowledge.

The Tiwi women kindly allowed us to record some of their stories, so it would not be forgotten.  Their hope is that their ‘Messages of Hope’ might assist other communities to bring back the traditional healing practices that have been passed down to them.

Because you know what?   Sometimes we just have to give people a little push to remember the value of what once was.

Please watch their story and feel free to leave a message to send back to them.